HONOLULU, HI. The image of a beautiful smile on a flower adorned woman wearing a short grass skirt and coconut inspired bras, dancing away on a secluded beach at sunset. We’ve all seen it – in a travel brochure perhaps, or in a TV advertisement – and most would be able to place it into context quite easily. The “hula girls” are probably one of the most recognized symbols of Hawaii, projecting the islands as an exotic destination and entertainment focused culture. However, what is the hula dance really about? What are its roots? And why should we know?
Hula is the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.1
Since much of the ancient Hawaiian language was oral rather than written, early practices and traditions were passed through the creations and memorization of chants (also known as oli or mele) and dances (known as hula). Hula became the channel that kept the Hawaiian heritage alive across generations and allowed locals to preserve their connection to their ancient past.
Multiple legends surrounding the origin of hula attribute its roots to the Hawaiian deities. One such tale states that Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, requested her sisters to perform a song accompanied by a dance in her honour. Only the younger sister, Hi’iaka, complied and amazed everyone with her grace and energy. Another story credits the goddess of hula, Laka, as the originator of the dance. Locals built temples to honour Laka and dancers were employed to carry the dance forward through strenuous training and commitment. Both male and female dancers were trained in the art and philosophy of the dance from birth and held a high-ranking status in society. The essence of the hula focused on the deep inward connection between the dancer and earth, celebrating deities, natural elements and aspects of creation.
When it was first performed, the meaning of certain words was known only by the hula masters and chants often told multiple stories simultaneously. Deciphering the symbolism turned the ceremony into an intellectual game and allowed the audience to interpret the meaning in different ways. Different vocal techniques, tones and instruments were required for different rituals, while the dances strived to preserve diverse elements of the Hawaiian culture.
During Hawaii’s American missionary era (beginning in the early 1820s), many forms of ancient Hawaiian expression were banned as the dances were considered suggestive. Missionaries discouraged locals from practicing their cultural and religious beliefs, and Hawaiians were eventually forced to speak English, and required to wear Western-style clothes. Hula remained alive behind closed doors and it wasn’t until over 70 years later that King Kalākaua revived the dance and other customs.
The hula and mele are important symbols of the Hawaiian culture that span thousands of years and carried many of the traditions, customs and beliefs of ancient civilizations. As such, it is important to ensure the right messages are communicated and everyone is informed of their sacred place in Hawaiian history. Visitors must strive to break the process of cultural invasion, seek to stay informed and reject engaging in practices that perpetuate an artificial cultural image.
Through education and awareness, travelers can engage in more sustainable tourism practices by seeking authentic experiences, preserving local communities and engaging in respectful and informed celebrations of culture. Leaving that old, revealing hula Halloween costume home on your next trip might be a smart decision. There are so many better ways to celebrate your sweet sixteen than by taking shots out of plastic coconut bras on the beach, let me assure you!
© 1. King Kalākaua, the last reigning king of Hawaii | Cover photo courtesy of Ann Cecil, Lonely Planet, Getty | Ka `Imi Na`auao O Hawaii Nei | HulaDanceHQ.com | Hawaiian Encyclopedia | WorldArtsWest.org | Patterson, Tourism’s Negative Impact on Native Hawaiians |
This post is part of a series titled “Beyond Paradise,” inspired by my most recent trip to Hawaii. The series will explore the islands’ rich culture and past.